I never thought I could feel sympathy for a bivalve mollusk. But consider this. To make a cultured pearl they capture larvae on a black column of bushy plastic, put a plastic net over the column to protect it from predators so it can grow into an oyster. When the oyster is ready to start making pearls they starve the poor beast for three days so it’s easier for the workers to pry it open. Then they put in an irritant which they call a “seed”. After being put back into the water the oyster is irritated for 3 to 5 years, secreting mother of pearl to coat the irritant.
After enough time someone pulls the oyster out of the water and scrubs it to clean it of algae.
Then a worker pries the oyster open again to claim the pearl. There is about a 50% chance that the oyster will either be able to spit out the irritant or will die, so there is no pearl. Only about 5% of the oysters present top quality pearls. The rest are lower quality jewelry pearls or “craft quality” which means they are too small, odd shaped or not luminous.
Those oysters that survive but do not produce are released to produce more larvae to be captured to go through the whole process again. Those that do produce are given a day’s rest, one day in 3 to 5 years. Then a new seed is placed in the oyster that is size of the pearl extracted. The pearl farmers hope this will produce a bigger pearl next time. An oyster produces three pearls before its released from bondage and set free to produce news larvae. It’s actually a pretty interesting process to watch and some of the pearls are beautiful.
The reason pearls come in different shades of color is the irritant placed inside as well as the individual differences in each oyster’s secretion. The irritant used to create Polynesian black pearls is a fragment of black freshwater muscle shell imported from the Mississippi River. It is milled into a sphere that will, hopefully produce a spherical pearl. Pear shaped pearls are also valued. The black is reflected or refracted through the translucent mother of pearl coating. The oyster’s shells also have mother of pearl coating on the inside and some are used in making crafts and jewelry.
The cultured pearl industry was started in Polynesia in the 1960s by Chinese immigrants.
Information in this post is from visits to the Robert Wan Pearl Museum in Papeete and The Farm, the Bora Bora Pearl Company. Each place entices you to come by offering free transportation to their facility. The Robert Wan in an air conditioned mini-van and The Farm in “Le Truck” a flatbed truck with a wooden box on the flatbed that has seats and windows without glass. It is a traditional form of Polynesian mass transit that has been replaced by buses and is now almost exclusively used for tourist shuttles.
I am used to going to shops after a pitch by a tout and an offer of free transportation. This is very common in the Middle East and in India. I expected to be plied with tea and an increasingly hard sell while being assured that there is “no obligation.” The pearl places did not hard sell at all. We looked at their jewelry and if we did not want to buy we got a free ride back to the pier. The Farm did have an interesting twist. For $300 we could buy an oyster, pick it from the string of oysters hanging from the pier, and have it opened. We would get to keep the pearl. It’s a good sales gimmick. I wonder if there is a $5 bill wrapped with that bar of soap.
(If you don’t get the soap reference Google Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith.)